Category Archives: Anecdotes

Can 4K TVs help bring back family time?

Although I don’t have one myself, I’m pretty excited about the explosion of 4K / Ultra HD televisions in the market.

Why am I excited? There’s almost no programming available in 4K right now, and for what little programming you can find in 4K, it’s difficult for the human eye to detect the difference between Full HD/1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) and 4K / Ultra HD (3840 x 2160 pixels) from across the room unless the TV is really big…like 80″ or more. And there’s no way my fiancée and I will be getting a TV that big for our townhome apartment.

But I’m still excited about 4K, because a 4K screen can be divided up into four smaller screens, each of them at 1080p.

Because TV sizes are measured diagonally, that means a 50″ 4K TV (like this one, currently $498 at Amazon) can be divided into four sections, each of them equivalent to a 25″ 1080p TV…just slightly larger than the 24″ 1080p TV I have in the office upstairs.

Love, marriage and separate screens

Aside from using the 24″ TV as a PC monitor, I often find myself using it to watch something different from what my better half is watching downstairs. As much as I enjoy her company, the Venn Diagram of our tastes in TV and movies does not overlap much. (She recently introduced me to Happy Valley, a rare show we can enjoy together as soon as I catch up to her.)

We’re not alone either: about 1 in 4 couples spends at least three evenings per week in separate rooms because they want to watch different things on television.

Sometimes we do take turns for the sake of togetherness. I’ve seen enough episodes of Switched at Birth to be familiar with the characters and plot, and she has sat through some CSI: Miami and House of Cards episodes with me. (This is all on Netflix.) But research shows this might not be the best solution for our relationship in the long run either.

But what if we could both watch what we wanted to on the same screen at the same time from the same couch? That’s what 4K can offer.

What about audio?

In the 1989 movie Back to the Future: Part II, Marty McFly, Jr. used voice commands to tell his 2015 TV to display six different channels on the screen at once. (See the section of this clip starting at the 2:10 mark.)

One thing that struck me about this was that the McFlys’ TV set was also playing audio from all six channels at the same time, leading to incoherent noise. I don’t know how Marty Jr. understood anything he was watching!

Presumably, if my bride and I were sharing a screen and a sofa while watching different shows, one thing that wouldn’t make sense to share is the audio from our disparate programs. Of course, one or both of us could wear headphones, but that would at least make it hard for our time together to be all that much of an improvement over our time apart.

Monaural Bluetooth headsets would be an improvement so we’d each at least have one ear free, but I’m not sure if the new 4K sets are sophisticated enough to split the audio from each screen to different sources. Closed captioning could work, depending on the program. Switched at Birth would be a prime candidate for this since so much of it is in subtitled American Sign Language anyway. News and sporting events could be shown with closed captioning too without much sacrifice on my part — after all, if you walk into a sports bar, most if not all of the TVs are on mute.

And then there’s this:

Use the tech you already have

Since we don’t have a 4K TV, and all of our extra money is going into our wedding fund right now, we can use the technology we already have to achieve a similar goal. Each of us has a laptop with Netflix access. So, rather than splitting up a big 4K TV screen, one of us could use our living room TV while the other one watches from the same sofa on a laptop screen with a headset or on mute with closed captioning. Tablets and even smart phones can work for this purpose as well, although you might find yourself squinting at the smaller screens.

Unless a show or movie is about to be dropped, Netflix is not particularly time-sensitive. I can watch my reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit whenever I choose. But last fall, her Downton Abbey episodes conflicted with my Sunday Night Football games. Sporting events are meant to be watched live, and Downton Abbey was one of those shows that could be considered water-cooler television the next day, so we both wanted to watch our shows live, over the air. And this meant being in separate rooms.

Downton Abbey is now over, of course, and there’s nothing scheduled to be on the air on Sunday evenings this fall that has piqued her interest. In hindsight, I have a USB TV tuner that has been sitting in a drawer for a while…I could have plugged this into my laptop along with a little antenna to watch football on mute while she watched Downton Abbey. If such a situation resurfaces, I may have to try that.

Although I have precious little space remaining on my laptop’s SSD, I could even use a little of that space for a free download of MythTV to turn my laptop into a DVR and send the actual recordings to the larger hard drive attached to my Pogoplug.

We’ll have to do a little experimenting to make this work, but I think it can be done. I don’t want television to keep us apart, but I certainly don’t long for 1955, when the entire family had to gather around a single TV with three channels to choose from…and no reruns.

Just turn it off sometimes

Of course, I don’t want to overlook an even lower-tech solution to our problem: turning the TV off altogether and doing something else for real quality time. And we certainly do this sometimes as well…we might go for a walk in the park (weather permitting), play a game, or just go out on a date. Watching too much television — with or without your partner — is obviously not a good thing. But watching TV with your partner by your side is usually better than watching TV alone. And that’s where 4K televisions could make a real difference.









How I got hooked on “How I Met Your Mother”

Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story. It’s the story of how I got hooked on How I Met Your Mother, including the controversial finale episode.

You should know that this story contains some major spoilers (Major Spoilers!), but what do you care? I’m not letting you leave until you hear the whole story anyway, so get comfy and be sure to watch the embedded videos throughout — everything will make a lot more sense.

The year was 2008. I actually wasn’t familiar with the show at all until I happened to catch an episode from Season 4 called “Do I Know You?” I remember distinctly how I thought it had a whole different feel and rhythm to it than anything I had ever seen on television before. Before this guy Ted (Josh Radnor) could marry a woman named Stella (Sarah Chalke, whom I recognized from her days on Roseanne and Scrubs), he had to be sure that she liked Star Wars…because she said she had never seen it before, and it was his favorite movie. Meanwhile his buddy Marshall (Jason Segel) hid behind the couch trying to gauge her reactions to the movie to be certain if she would be an acceptable wife for him.

Here’s a sample:

It was a funny bit, no doubt. But that could have just as easily been from an episode of Friends…which was a funny show if not always imaginative. My mother, who had admittedly not seen much of the series, later told me that she thought How I Met Your Mother was a copycat of Friends…the group sitting around a booth at an establishment where beverages are served, young, single people trading partners, etc.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a moment a little later on in that episode that encapsulated what made the show so different. Stella tells Ted (dishonestly) that she loved the movie.

Even without one of the show’s signature flashbacks from Old Ted (the voice of Bob Saget), present-day Ted had a flashback to his youth.

It was a long time before I saw another episode of How I Met Your Mother. Considering the first one I saw was from Season 4, I was already behind. Fortunately, thanks to DVDs and, later, Netflix streaming, I was able to catch up and watch the series in order.

After I saw the pilot episode, I began to understand what made How I Met Your Mother so different from Friends and all the other sitcoms out there. If I were Marshall, I’d have a few charts to illustrate, but I’ll settle for a few paragraphs.

Flashbacks (and flash forwards) as a central plot device. Of course, a lot of shows had used flashbacks in the past. This wasn’t a new idea. What was new was that the entire show was a flashback: It was after all, a father telling his kids about things that happened decades earlier. He even forgot some details (like Blah Blah’s name) and sanitized others (sandwiches as a euphemism for marijuana) like a real father would when telling stories to his kids. it felt like traveling in a time machine operated by someone with ADHD. Although you hear laughter on the show from an audience, there were very few scenes actually shot in front of an audience because the producers knew that it would be impossible for them to keep up or get most of the jokes due to all the jumping around. As any fan of Arrested Development can attest, having a narrator makes all of this a lot easier.

Not that all of the format-bending fun involved the narrator…

Storytelling and themed episodes. One of the advantages of using so many flashbacks and a narrator was how it facilitated the show’s unique sense of storytelling. Whether it was Old Ted telling his kids the story of getting beaten up by a girl who knew Krav Maga, Barney illustrating why he shouldn’t date his doctor Stella based on “The Platinum Rule,” or Marshall spending an entire episode telling stories in rhyme in order to keep his baby son asleep, the characters on How I Met Your Mother knew how to spin a good yarn.

Of course, there are other funny ways for sitcom characters to tell stories — sometimes it’s funniest when they just tell them.

The show’s refusal to be constrained by any format — including its own — also led to “How Your Mother Met Me,” a truly inspired and touching idea that added another perspective to all of Ted’s near misses in meeting the mother. Through Season 9, Tracy McConnell’s (Cristin Milioti) own story was revealed. She became a realistic, flawed character instead of an abstract ideal of “the perfect woman.” She even met all of the other main characters before she met Ted. We actually got to know the mother, which was not what I had expected during earlier seasons.

Absurdist bits with pop culture homages. I’m a big fan of absurdist humor…things that could never, ever really happen. The fact that writers come up with these impossible scenarios is a testament to their broad imaginations. The later episodes of Seinfeld had a definite absurdist tone to them that was not present in the earlier episodes of the series. And much like Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), How I Met Your Mother had Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) to do a lot of inspired physical comedy and sell patently silly lines with great conviction. The combination of absurdism and storytelling/flashbacks enabled the show to create a sort of sketch comedy within its broader narrative. That ’70s Show was also famous for this.

Absurdism, like whisky for Barney and Marshall, turns subtext into text. In a strange way, this sort of comedy allows the characters to be more honest and reveal deeper truths about the real world.

Old Ted’s narration as well as Barney’s intricate rules were really just a variation of Woody Allen breaking the fourth wall.

But it’s not like the show’s writers tried to hide their influences.

Extremely elaborate, recurring jokes. One of the more transformative moments for How I Met Your Mother came in Season 2 with an episode called “Slap Bet.” This episode was very important to the rest of the series because of two recurring jokes that were woven into future episodes and extended beyond the show and onto the Internet. In this episode, Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) tells the group (quite angrily), “I don’t go to malls!” But she refuses to explain why. Barney hypothesizes that the reason is somehow related to pornography, and Marshall thinks it’s because Robin got married in a mall during her younger days in Canada. They make a bet about who is right — more specifically, they make a slap bet. The winner of the bet gets to slap the loser. Marshall’s bride-to-be Lily (Alyson Hannigan) is named Slap Bet Commissioner and gets to referee the bet.

It turned out they were both wrong — the real reason Robin never goes to malls is that she used to be a teen pop star during her younger days in Canada under the stage name Robin Sparkles, and her big hit song was called “Let’s Go to the Mall.” The music video for the song was shot, naturally, in a mall.

Even though they were both wrong, Barney was more wrong for slapping Marshall without having been proven right (“premature slapulation”). So, as Slap Bet Commissioner, Lily ruled that Marshall could slap Barney five times at any point from that day forward, not necessarily all at once.

The show milked the slap bet and Robin’s Canadian pop star career for years to come. Viewers learned that Robin Sparkles had made two other music videos as well as an educational children’s show. Her life was clearly written as a parody of Tiffany’s and Alanis Morrissette’s.

Unlike How I Met Your Mother, Friends usually retained some semblance of believability, but its most inspired bit of comedy was Phoebe’s bizarre folk song “Smelly Cat” — which took on an absurdist  life of its own throughout the series.

Sometimes How I Met Your Mother would extend the jokes onto the Internet or into DVD extras that never aired. Who thinks of making a music video of a song that was supposedly written by a fictional character…and then in a later season invites Boyz II Men to perform it? Who thinks of making a “Behind the Scenes” reel for a different music video that was fake to begin with? The writers of How I Met Your Mother, that’s who.

Oh, and I now own a copy of The Bro Code, and I might just buy a copy of The Playbook. Can you think of any other books you can actually buy that were “authored” by sitcom characters?

Real emotional depth and character development. Despite the similarities to those absurdist shows of the past, How I Met Your Mother was not afraid to make you pull out your box of facial tissues. (Kleenex® is a brand!)

In Season 6, Marshall’s father Marvin (Bill Fagerbakke from Coach) passed away unexpectedly, and Marshall was left to deal with the fact that, while his last words to everyone else in the family were expressions of love, the last call he got from his father was a pocket dial voice mail. Jason Segel’s gutwrenching delivery as a grieving son searching for answers from God blurred the line between comedy and drama. It also showed that the show wasn’t afraid to deal with death.

The characters also showed real growth throughout the series, especially Barney. His sociopathic behavior toward women with “daddy issues,” which was the comedic gift that just kept on giving, was later revealed to be a symptom of his own painful separation from his father (John Lithgow from 3rd Rock from the Sun). Neil Patrick Harris showed himself to be one of the most versatile actors on the planet just with his wide-ranging portrayal of this one complicated character.

Oh, and he’s one hell of a singer.

Beginning with the end in mind. One of the inherent challenges of writing a television series that is based on a father telling stories to his children is that the actors playing those children will grow up. This was not lost on the creators of the show (Carter Bays and Craig Thomas). Even though the show’s finale aired in 2014, the ending scenes involving the children Luke and Penny (David Henrie and Lyndsy Fonseca, who are not children anymore) were shot back in 2006. (Unlike the insincere Stella, Tracy sincerely liked Star Wars enough to let Ted name their children Luke and Leia.)

And yet, despite knowing that Tracy was going to pass away and Ted would end up running back to Robin just as he did in the pilot episode, the show’s creators did their damnedest to throw viewers off the scent. Consider just how far the show veered away from Ted and Robin getting together:

  • In the pilot episode, Old Ted referred to Robin as “Aunt Robin” and kept on referring to her that way throughout the series.
  • Ted proposed to two other women: Stella and Victoria (Ashley Williams)
  • Robin discovered that she was infertile. She told her fiancee-for-a-moment Kevin (Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar fame) that not only could she not have biological children, she didn’t want to adopt either. Barring some medical breakthrough or a huge change of heart about adoption, this made it impossible for her to be the mother.
  • Ted asked Robin if she loved him, and she said, “No.”
  • Robin married Barney, with Ted going out of his way to make sure that she went through with it instead of running away from it with him.
  • Ted met Tracy on the day of their wedding.
  • Tracy was revealed at the end of Season 8 to be the mother. She proved herself to be an ideal match for Ted…from her tendency to tell long stories right down to the Gore-Lieberman shirt to go with his hanging chad Halloween costume. Ted and Tracy got married.

Still, no matter how tightly the door was closed, the show propped the door open for Ted and Robin just a little bit…especially with Marshall’s continued refusal to pay up on his long-term bet with Lily about them ending up together (or not).

The show also foreshadowed Tracy’s death on multiple occasions. We should have seen it coming.

Despite being a situation comedy, How I Met Your Mother broke a lot of sitcom conventions, and that’s what made it great. The show’s creators took a lot of creative risks — some of them worked, and some of them didn’t. Despite what many casual fans and even critics think, I believe the show’s biggest risk (the mother’s untimely death) was exactly the right creative choice and one that the show foreshadowed in earlier episodes. The long, sobering scene when Marshall mourned the death of his father and yelled at God should have prepared fans for the possibility that nothing was off-limits, not even death.

Dealing with death is a part of life, and doesn’t it make sense that a father telling his children such a long story like that (without the mother ever interrupting or correcting the facts) might be trying to help his children to connect with a woman they were not old enough to know well? Ted didn’t do such a great job at this — his daughter noticed that the mother was barely in the story and that he was obviously still hung up on Robin. But we do know that he loved Tracy, and I was pleased that we learned as much about her as we did in that final season. If you think about it, it’s the best explanation of all for a romantic comedy whose central character is a man, not a woman.

There were a few occasions when I wondered exactly where this show was going and if it had lost its way. There were some throwaway episodes here and there, but the finale was a giant payoff for the show’s more ‘invested’ fans who had watched Ted meander through this tale for nine years. It included a lot of running gags — the mother’s name (Ted once met a stripper who said her name was Tracy, and Old Ted sarcastically told the kids that she was the mother), the cockamouse, the perfect week/month, Ted’s hanging chad Halloween costume, and especially the blue French horn at the end.

Note: After the finale episode aired, Alyson Hannigan talked about some important scenes that were filmed but ultimately ended up on the cutting-room floor. One of those scenes involved Tracy’s funeral and Ted mourning her death. Another involved Lily paying Marshall for losing the long-term bet. I’m looking forward to seeing the deleted scenes when the final season of DVDs is released, and I hope that those scenes will make the ending a little less jarring without fundamentally changing it. 

Set my hair afire, Lord!

Set my soul afire Lord
For thy holy word
Burn it deep within me
Let thy voice be heard

“Set My Soul Afire” — Hymn

December 24, 1996 was a date I will probably never forget. My mother will never let me.

I was 17 at the time — in my junior year of high school. We had gone to our church for the Christmas Eve candlelight service. My friend Matt, who was quite religious but also quite alone in the world, chose to come with us. He even stayed at our home that night at my mother’s insistence because she believed nobody should be alone on Christmas.

As we were walking outside of the worship center (unlike Catholics, evangelical Protestants are very careful not to ascribe spiritual significance to physical objects like buildings…so they could not call it a sanctuary), I was having a little adolescent fun with my candle. My mother was directly in front of me, and I was teasing her by blowing the flame not so much out as forward.

Unfortunately, I did not have as much control over the flame as I thought I had, and the ribbon in her hair caught fire. Matt and I rushed up to her and quickly stamped out the flames, which did end up singeing her hair a bit. Men who were walking out behind us were in the midst of removing their coats so they could push her to the ground and put out her hair.

For a couple of years later, whenever the congregation would sing “Set My Soul Afire,” I would emphatically replace the word “soul” with “hair” just to tease her. I think I get that from Dad — Mom was not amused.

Taking baby steps

I used to love riding my bicycle when I was younger. I rode almost every day. One time I rode too far away and down far too busy a street and then came home to find my mom standing angrily in the driveway…and my bike taken away from me for a while.

After she gave it back I still loved to ride. But after a while I started to notice a nagging pain in my left leg whenever I rode. I tried to just work through it but the pain became too much to bear, so I went to a doctor. The doctor put me through a series of tests and found that I had a benign cyst on my femur. The doctor offered to do surgery to remove it but thought that the surgery might be worse than just living with it since it wasn’t malignant.

The only trouble was that it kept me off my bicycle. The less I rode, the weaker my legs got and the less I was able to do other physical activities that I enjoyed. I couldn’t run or play basketball or (attempt to) dance without getting out of breath. It was partially because I was asthmatic, but the weakness in my legs made my heart and lungs work much harder to compensate for the lack of strength.

A few days ago I was walking through the garage looking for something and I can swear I heard a bicycle whispering at me.

“PSSSST! Where have you been? Isn’t it about time to get me out for a ride?” it seemed to say. “I’m tired of being all cooped up in here!”

So I got it out. I got a few feet down the street and discovered that the tires were messed up. Now this could have been the perfect excuse not to ride, but instead I went back and borrowed a bicycle from my mom.

I got on that bike and rode it through the neighborhood. But because of the pain I was in and my difficulty breathing when I saw home again after going in a circle through the subdivision it felt like the finish line at the Tour de France. I didn’t ride very far, but I was able to achieve a small victory. And maybe that small victory will enable me to push myself to go just a little farther next time. And a little farther the time after that.

Clearly I will never win the Tour de France, and it was never really a dream of mine anyway…I always thought of bicycling as a non-competitive hobby and maybe a means of transportation in certain areas. But I can savor a small victory.

Now I don’t know if I can put my finger on it but I think something about that very minor achievement gave me a tiny boost of confidence that I sorely needed, and it might just ripple through the other aspects of my life.

Addendum: After discussing my experience with my mom, she said, “Thank you! I thought I was the only one who couldn’t pedal that bike! I thought it was just because I was old!” Apparently there is a problem with this bicycle and it shouldn’t be this hard to ride, even for me.

What makes a smart gambler?

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run

— Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

You’ll have to pardon me if I lack a certain entrepreneurial spirit. After a few spectacular flame-outs I’ve lost my taste for risk for the time being. Given what has happened in our economy it would be hard to blame anyone for being a little gunshy right now.

In fact when I see people taking big chances I believe that I actually panic vicariously through them.

Risk is not merely a financial concept either…there are many types of risks. You risk your life whenever you get behind the wheel of a car. You risk your health whenever you eat an indulgent meal. You risk injury whenever you play a sport. And you risk your sanity when you enter a relationship of any kind on any level.

Some of these risks are unavoidable — or at least they are less risky than the alternative. For example, if you never get behind the wheel of a car then you might never get to work, and you stand a much greater risk of financial distress. So risk is also relative.

That brings me to a dilemma. How do you know when it’s worthwhile to take a big risk? Is it when you stand to receive an excellent payoff? Is it when you are confident that you can win? Is it when you become desperate and have nothing of value left to lose?

And if you’ve already taken the plunge, how do you know when to call it quits? Do you quit while you’re ahead? Do you give up when you’ve lost more than you can afford to lose? Do you stop when you realize you’ve become addicted to the intoxicating rush of it all?

Just as many investors are sitting on the sidelines and staying out of the stock market I am also trying to insulate myself from a risky environment.

Gray area is just a nice way of saying minefield

The Berlin Wall was a pretty imposing and horrible structure. On the east side of the wall sat East Berlin: a place gripped by poverty, despair and totalitarian government. On the west side of the wall sat West Berlin: a modern, affluent, democratic society. People were maimed and killed trying to climb over from East Berlin to West Berlin.

Still, with that wall there people always knew which side they were on. There was no room for interpretation and ambiguity. There was no gray area, and that wall was more or less impenetrable.

But what if, instead of a wall, there was an unmarked Berlin Minefield? Would you try to cross it knowing that either you could run to freedom or die instantly depending on where you stepped?

In my life I have dealt much better with black and white issues than with gray areas. In a gray area you don’t know where you stand. You don’t know who may be offended by your actions. You’re left to feel things out and guess, and I am a terrible guesser.

So if you’re dealing with me, please do me a favor and be crystal clear about what you expect…because otherwise there may be some unfortunate accidents.